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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Russian Reflections

John Harrison

anuary 1987. For most of 1986, Gorbachev had been preparing for major changes, but little was actually done. At the January 1987 Plenum of the Central Committee, Gorbachev went on the offensive and called for changes in the party’s official ideas. ‘Developed socialism’ was out, ‘self-development’ was in together with the development of the ‘socialist market’. Gorbachev denounced the period of stagnation without mentioning Brezhnev, and declared that there were too many Brezhnev-era cadres in the Party. A Party Conference was convoked in mid-1988, to get rid of them.

On television, Soviet viewers were amazed to see the show ‘Prozhektor Perestroika’; a section of the ‘Vremya’ news programme broadcasts news from the centre and from the provinces. Programmes often showed Gorbachev on his travels around the country and highlighted the ‘green shoots’ of perestroika in contrast to the old dark evil places where people were not yet perestroiking themselves. ‘Vzglyad’, by far the most radical show so far, hit the screens in October, becoming ultrapopular when Alexandre Politovsky and Vladimir Mukusev joined the team and aired discussions on subjects like getting rid of Lenin’s tomb. Several episodes were cut, but the show had become unstoppable and somehow survived until it was closed in 1991. Glasnost was out of control in 1987.

28th May 1987. A Cessna 172P light aircraft landed just outside Red square piloted by a 19-year-old German, Mattius Rust. Rust was seeking Gorbachev’s attention, and he got it. Whilst flying over Finland, he dropped to a height of 60 metres and dropped a canister with petrol to imitate a catastrophe, then flew on to Moscow. Soviet air defences assessed the risk as being minimal, and failed to take any preventative measures. Rust landed on Vasilievsky Spusk and was applauded by passers-by. Gorbachev took this opportunity to get rid of Minister of Defence Sergei Sokolov and General Alexander Koldunov, the Chief of the Air Defence Forces, both of whom were not exactly bright beacons of perestroika. Many have said that this event together with Chernobyl helped to destroy the reputation both of Soviet science and of Soviet Power.

August 1987. Demonstrations in Lithuania and Estonia were held during the anniversary of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty. Gorbachev continued to maintain a non-involvement policy towards the constituent republics of the Union.

11th November 1987. Intellectuals who previously backed Gorbachev started to shift allegiances to Yeltsin who was First Secretary of the Moscow party. The Moscow boss went about implementing radical changes, as a result of which he became a tremendously popular mayor. He fought corruption (thus the dismissal of just about everybody), allowed street traders, and attacked abuse of party privileges. He saw himself to be in the advance guard of Perestroika.

He had little tact, or rather had no tact at all. During the run-up to celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin ravaged Gorbachev and the leadership of the party as being compromised. Not a man to accept criticism in pubic, especially from Yeltsin who had previously complained to both hardliner Yegor Ligachev about his wife, Raisa, meddling in affairs of state, Gorbachev, accepted Yeltsin’s resignation as a candidate member of the Politburo in October. But that wasn’t enough. On the 11th of November, a conference of the Moscow City Party Organisation was called. Although Yeltsin was sick and in hospital, he was pumped full of drugs and dragged along to attend. Many saw this as one of Gorbachev’s lowest act. Yeltsin admitted his faults, but a decision had already been taken: a succession of speakers denounced his arrogance and he was sacked as the capital’s Party Secretary. From this point on, neither man was rational when contemplating the other. To counter Yeltsin, who was still a force to be reckoned with, Gorbachev had to consider going further along the reformist road than perhaps he had originally intended.

Meanwhile, the west saw ‘Gorby’ as the saviour of mankind. He became one of the most talked-about people on the planet in 1987. This was ‘Gorby mania’ year, where one incredible event followed the next to a thumbs up from ‘Maggie’ and ‘Ronny’. Crowds gathered wherever Gorby went, and the General Secretary published a book.

November 1987. In his book, modestly called Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, Gorbachev denounced the ‘Stalinist command- administrative-system’. He pointed out that growth had stagnated from 1981-1985. Gorbachev nevertheless idolised Lenin as a humanitarian and tried to isolate his hero from the violence that ensued after his death. However Gorbachev’s drive to democracy was in fact anti-Leninist; Leninists weren’t very democratic. This ideological schizophrenia manifested itself in public with the enmity between hardliner Yegor Ligachev and those supporting the views of Alexander Yakovlev, who was widely seen as being the intellectual force behind Gorbachev’s perestroika, and who was appointed to the same full politburo status as Ligachev in June 1987. Both men had been appointed by Gorbachev at different stages of his political journey, and Gorbachev was not averse to playing opponents off against each other to his own advantage

Douglas O’Donnell February 1987

y second trip to Moscow was in February of 1987. I was apart of an international group of approximately 400 students studying abroad. It was known informally then and still today as Semester At Sea. We travelled to twelve countries as we circumnavigated the globe. Our third port of call was Yalta.

In 1987, we thought we were in what we thought was the middle of the Cold War. Accordingly, we were both apprehensive and excited to have a back stage pass to the capital of what our President called the “Evil Empire”. From the Black Sea, the sea side resort looked dreary and grey. We where transported from the boat to our Aeroflot flight to Moscow via Intourist buses.

Upon arrival, the tension in the air was palpable. There was a multitude of security personnel, military and airport workers. What there were not: smiles. The immigration and customs agents were all business. There were three signs that struck out at me: “No Talking,” “No Photography”, and “No Pornography”. They did not share in our elation to be off the flight and our desire to explore the capital of our biggest “enemy”. We boarded the spartan buses and headed directly to the Hotel Cosmos. On the way, there were a plethora of large monolithic buildings and monochromatic edifices lined the highway. The mood and the landscape were dark, cold and grey.

“Welcome to the Hotel Cosmos!” was the phrase with which we greeted upon disembarking from our buses. As cold and foreboding as our introduction to Moscow was, our initial response to the Hotel was the exact opposite. It was as if we had just landed at a glitzy Las Vegas hotel. There was a gift shop, a Heineken bar, a bowling alley, grand stair-cases, high ceilings, and it was all so well lit!

At dinner that night, we sat at long tables. Large trays of dried meats, marinated vegetables and smoked fish were passed. But what was amazing was the amount of vodka and caviar that was served! I had never seen so much and it never ran out! Say what you want but the “Evil Empire” really knew how to party!

The next day we boarded buses for an all-day tour of Moscow. The Intourist guides were well dressed, smiled incessantly, they had beautiful teeth, skin and hair, and they spoke perfect English. The people outside, were the complete opposite. The guides waxed poetical about the benefits of the Socialist State: free everything! Transportation, medicine, insurance, education (we all did appreciate this one!) and rent was all paid for by the State. The people in the streets seemed not to be informed of this. They looked much older than they actually were. They were not well kept, their clothes were shabby and their teeth were universally stained and crooked! No smiles.

Only the ‘traders’ smiled. These people were generally young and surprisingly hip and they sort of spoke English. “Doooouuuglas, you want a Soviet flag, a furry hat to keep your girlfriend warm during a cold February Moscow night, a Soviet uniform, etc…. for your pair of American jeans?” I happily obliged. The fun was, as the Irish say, “the bit of banter” between the ‘trader’ and us. I am convinced that they are amongst today’s Russian oligarchs.

What a great experience….

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